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Review of  The Kifuliiru Language volume 1: Phonology, Tone, and Morphology Derivation

Reviewer: Michael R. Marlo
Book Title: The Kifuliiru Language volume 1: Phonology, Tone, and Morphology Derivation
Book Author: Karen Van Otterloo
Publisher: SIL International Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Fuliiru
Issue Number: 23.4339

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AUTHOR: Karen Van Otterloo
TITLE: The Kifuliiru Language, Volume 1
SUBTITLE: Phonology, Tone, and Morphological Derivation
PUBLISHER: SIL International Publications
YEAR: 2011

Michael R. Marlo, Department of English, University of Missouri


At over 1000 pages and with over 1300 linguistic examples, the two-volume work,
“The Kifuliiru Language”, by Karen and Roger Van Otterloo, is an impressively
large and thorough linguistic description, based on many years of work with the
Fuliiru-speaking community, including over 13 years in which the authors lived
among the Bafuliiru in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The
first volume (on which this review focuses), by Karen Van Otterloo, details the
phonology and tonal system of Fuliiru and also contains detailed information
about aspects of the morphology of the language. The second volume, by Roger Van
Otterloo, deals with primarily non-phonological grammatical and discourse-level
phenomena. Each of the two volumes is accompanied by an excellent preface by
Derek Nurse, and a moving foreword by representatives of the Bafuliiru community.

Following a brief initial chapter, “Conventions”, Ch. 2 “Phonology” describes
the non-tonal phonology of Fuliiru, which includes the phonemic inventory of the
language, information about the phonological and morphological distribution of
these phonemes, and syllable structure. Phonological processes identified and
exemplified include rules of flapping, post-nasal voicing, nasal place
assimilation, vowel hiatus resolution, vowel lengthening, vowel shortening,
vowel harmony, glide epenthesis, and spirantization. Ch. 2 also includes
extended discussion of the phrasal cliticization of monosyllabic words (a topic
addressed again in the appendix).

The Fuliiru tonal system is the focus of the 175-page Ch. 3. As in most other
Bantu languages (see Downing 2011, Kisseberth & Odden 2003), tone is lexically
contrastive in Fuliiru and also has important grammatical functions. Van
Otterloo analyzes Fuliiru as having three underlying tonal values: /H/,
/L/, and /Ø/ (“toneless”). Underlying Hs typically surface [H]; underlying
Ls typically surface [L]. Underlyingly toneless tone-bearing units (TBUs)
can become affiliated with H in the course of tonal derivations, in which case
they surface [H], but if no other tone links to the toneless TBU, it surfaces
[L]. Thus, L is analyzed as the ‘default tone’. An interesting feature of
Fuliiru tonology is that many morphemes have the opposite tonal value compared
to Proto-Bantu, e.g. the verb root *-gùd- is /L/ in Proto-Bantu but /H/ -gúl-
in Fuliiru, while the /H/ root *-tég- ‘set (trap)’ of Proto-Bantu is /L/ -tèk-
in Fuliiru.

Verb roots come in three tonal types -- /H/, /L/, or /Ø/ -- and all verb forms
are inflected with a grammatical tonal suffix (“melody”), which is one of the
markers of tense-aspect distinctions on the verb. Two other types of morphemes
contribute H tones to verb forms: human singular object markers and the
causative and passive suffixes. Melodic tonal suffixes, which are selected as an
exponent of tense-aspect-mood inflection, are classified into two types: (i)
‘simple’ melodies consisting of a single /H/ or /L/ melodic tone, and (ii)
‘complex’, two tone melodies /HL/, /LH/, /LL/, and /HH/. The underlying floating
tonal suffixes typically link to the leftmost free TBU in the verb stem. In the
complex tonal melodies, the first tone of the melody links toward the left edge
of the verb stem, while the second tone of the melody links toward the right
edge of the verb stem.

Monomoraic and bimoraic noun stems are divided into two basic tonal types: H vs.
L. Most (but not all) longer nouns have either the H or L patterns or one of two
two-tone patterns -- LH or HL -- whose tones are analyzed as melodies that are
assigned to the noun using the principles established for verbs.

Ch. 4, “Derivational processes,” provides a detailed investigation into
category-changing morphology in Fuliiru, including examples of nouns derived
from verbs, adjectives, other nouns (by changing the noun class prefix), and
from ideophones, along with a handful of examples of V+N and N+N noun compounds.
We also find verbs derived from nouns, ideophones, and adjectives, as well as
examples of the many verbal auxiliaries of Fuliiru that are derived from other
verbs. Finally, examples are provided of adjectives and adverbs derived from verbs.

Ch. 5, “Verb stems,” focuses specifically on the morphology of the verb stem in
Fuliiru. The productive and non-productive verbal suffixes of the language are
identified and exemplified, and the various suffix combinations encountered in
the author’s corpus are summarized here.

The appendix, “Determining word boundaries and related orthography issues”,
describes the phonological and morphological diagnostics that the author uses in
determining word boundaries in Fuliiru. These include phonological properties,
such as the presence of surface long vowels, tonal contours, and the outcome of
vowel hiatus resolution. Grammatical features used to diagnose word boundaries
include the presence and placement of specific morphemes like subject markers,
the ‘prefinal’ suffix -ag-, and grammatical tonal suffixes.


A considerable amount of important linguistic territory is covered in this book,
which is the first significant description of the Fuliiru language. The
description of morphology in Ch’s. 4 and 5 is especially rich, and is possible
only after long, sustained work with a language. The section on the tonal system
is noteworthy for its methodical treatment of the grammatical tonal melodies,
showing how the melodies combine with the different lexical tonal classes of
verbs and with the causative and passive suffixes. Interesting data and strong
evidence are marshaled concerning the complex concept of ‘wordhood’ in the
appendix. (In fact, in my view, much of the information in the appendix is so
important that it should have been incorporated into the main text.) The
thorough description of grammaticalized auxiliary verbs is also impressive.

Nonetheless, a number of recurrent problems, particularly in the presentation of
the material, prevent this work from reaching its full potential. The
description and analysis are difficult to follow and evaluate in many places,
some key content is missing or underrepresented, and important literature on
Bantu languages has not been cited. In my criticisms below, I begin by focusing
on problems with the presentation; I then discuss missing content, issues with
the analysis, and finally problems involving citations.

Presentation issues: One of the main problems of presentation throughout Vol. 1
is that the reader is often not sufficiently prepared to deal with specific
facts or analytical details when they are discussed because s/he needs to
already know information that is not presented until later. In many cases, when
the relevant issues are addressed later, the information from the earlier
sections is not appropriately integrated into the discussion, making the later
sections challenging to comprehend as well.

A case in point is the whole of Ch. 4, which systemically describes
category-changing morphology, including nominalizations. While many of the
patterns discussed in this chapter will be familiar to Bantuists, in order to
understand this material, the reader needs to know about the noun class system
of the language and the morphological structure of nouns and verbs -- topics
which are not covered until Vol. 2. I found no cross-references within Ch. 4 to
any of the other locations in the book where morphology is discussed: Ch. 2 of
Vol. 2 for noun morphology; Ch’s. 3 and 5 of Vol. 1 and Ch. 9 of Vol. 2 for verb

Problems with the flow of information also play out at a low level in the
presentation of data. There is a tendency for large chunks of data to be given
at once, followed by all of the description of those forms. This format
unnecessarily requires the reader to constantly flip back and forth across pages
to compare the data against their description. A better format would split up
data displays into relatively small pieces and deal with those pieces
one-by-one, integrating description, data, and analysis, and then providing
extended discussion as necessary.

In Ch. 3, the tone rules are systematically separated out from the discussion
and analysis of the tonal data and are found over 100 pages into the chapter. In
the earlier sections of description and analysis, the reader has to flip far
ahead in the book to figure out what some new rule does, but the later section
itself is difficult to evaluate since the data that putatively motivate the rule
are no longer at hand. A more successful strategy would be to describe the data
and develop the analysis in tandem, presenting the rules motivated by the data
under discussion, and then later summarizing the analysis and rules. A similar
problem is found in the treatment of monosyllabic verb stems, which are omitted
from initial sections where longer verb stems are treated and treated separately
in a later section. In this format, the reader cannot evaluate the analysis of
any sections describing a specific tonal melody without data from one of the key
shapes of verb stems. The section on the monosyllabic verb stems is also
challenging to comprehend because the comparable forms from longer stems with
the same melody are not repeated.

Ch. 2 could be improved if the presentation of phonological rules were
reorganized more coherently around phenomena such as ‘NC effects’, ‘vowel hiatus
resolution’, ‘imbrication’, ‘minimality effects’, etc., which are theoretically
interesting phenomena that are well known and widely discussed in the literature
on Bantu languages. In the current format, many rules are organized randomly and
ineffectively. For example, although all of the rules that are necessary to
understand vowel hiatus resolution are found in § “Phonological rules
affecting vowels”, two unrelated rules involving vowel devoicing and
/u/-deletion after /m/ intervene between rules dealing with /V+V/ combinations
and two processes intimately related to hiatus resolution: compensatory
lengthening and post-glide vowel lengthening. Later within this section, we find
lengthy remarks on a vowel lengthening rule involving clitics, which has nothing
to do with vowel hiatus resolution, but which precedes a vowel shortening rule
that interacts with vowel hiatus resolution processes.

A section on morphologically governed rules is organized around rule types, e.g.
vowel harmony, epenthesis, avoidance of N+N sequences, etc. This organization
puts together rules from diverse and largely unrelated contexts that generally
do not interact with one another, and it separates related and interacting rules
from one another. One regrettable consequence of this organization is that a
rule that inserts [i] between the 1sg nasal subject prefix N- and following
nasals is found in the section on rules of ‘epenthesis’ instead of the section
on the avoidance of N+N sequences.

Content gaps: The interactions between phonological rules are generally not
discussed anywhere, which is a significant omission given the importance of rule
interaction to the development of any phonological analysis. A case showing this
concerns a rule, common in Bantu languages, that lengthens vowels before NC
sequences. This rule applies even when nasal segments are deleted before other
nasals, but this fact is not mentioned in the dedicated sections on pre-NC
lengthening or pre-nasal nasal deletion. In a later section on a (possibly
diachronic) rule of ‘nasal effacement’, it is noted that pre-NC lengthening
applies even when the nasal has been deleted before a voiceless fricative, but a
second rule interaction in the same data set is not mentioned: spirantization
triggers the subsequent application of nasal effacement.

In Ch. 3, a wide variety of stem sizes and shapes are presented for the
infinitival forms of verbs, and basic paradigms are given for the many tonal
melodies in the language. However, not all factors affecting tone are
sufficiently described in subsequent sections, where we do not find examples
with verb roots longer than CVC or CVVC or examples of verbs combined with
object markers in the HL, LH, or LL melodies. Longer verb stems are often
crucial in seeing the essential properties of a tonal pattern, and object
markers often trigger tonal alternations, so such data need to be systematically
presented as part of the basic documentation and description of the tone system.

The treatment of Fuliiru phrasal tonology is a major weakness of Ch. 3. The
discussion of the tonal patterns of phrasal forms is limited to the brief §3.12,
over 160 pages into Ch. 3, after virtually all of the analysis of the tonal
system has been presented. As with long verb stems and object markers,
phrase-medial forms are one of the key contexts that must be treated
systematically in the study of a Bantu tonal system. The few phrasal forms that
are provided suggest that data in phrase-medial position are essential to
understanding tone in Fuliiru. For example, in §3.12, we learn of phrase-final
vs. phrase-medial alternations such as:

‘he will hit’


á-ká-shúlíká múzíbò
‘he will hit Muzibo’


‘to love’


úkú-kùùndá múzíbò
‘to love Muzibo’.

These forms bear on one of the major themes of Ch. 3: the “extratonality” of the
final syllable of words, which is listed as one of the “basics” of Fuliiru tone
(p. 111) and is used to explain at least two key properties of verb tone: (i) H
tone does not spread onto the final syllable of the verb and (ii) grammatical
tone suffixes (usually) do not target the final syllable of verb stems.
Extratonality figures into the analysis of virtually all of the data in the
first five sections of Ch. 3 and is discussed separately in its own section,
§3.6. As Ch. 3 concludes, we discover from phrase-medial forms like those above
that tones do in fact spread to the stem-final syllable in phrase-medial
position. Unfortunately, so little phrasal data is provided that it is difficult
to assess the descriptions and proposed analyses or evaluate reasonable
alternatives, such as the possibility that the phrase-medial forms reveal the
basic tonal pattern and the phrase-final forms undergo rules. Other key
questions also cannot be answered by the given data and discussion, such as
whether the stem-final syllable can be targeted by the tone assignment rules
when the verb is in phrase-medial position. If the answer to that question is
“yes”, then much of the mechanics of the analysis presented in Ch. 3 needs to be
reconsidered, since the discussion leading up to this point has repeatedly
asserted that the final syllables of nouns and verbs are invisible to tone

Analytical issues: Some specific analytic choices made in Vol. 1 are not well
justified. For example, we learn in Ch. 2 that the vowels /u o/ behave as a
natural class with respect to a few phonological rules in Fuliiru, including two
of the vowel hiatus-resolving rules. The author always refers to /u o/ as the
“back” vowels. The low vowel /a/ is excluded from this characterization because
it is considered to be a “central” vowel. The possibility that the phonological
feature [+round] is responsible for the patterning together of /u o/ to the
exclusion of /a/ is never mentioned. This is relevant because in §,
it is crucial to the analysis that /a/ be treated as a third category of
backness distinct from /i e/ and from /u o/. The need for a three-way
phonological distinction in backness goes away if rounding is taken into account.

The analysis of phonetic mid tone given in Ch. 3 and discussed in some detail in
§3.3 is questionable. The distribution of mid tone is restricted such that it
occurs only after H and always derives from intermediate σ ́σ̌ (H-LH). In fn. 30
(p. 121), the author mentions the possibility of analyzing the mid tone as a
downstepped H, which would be the result of the L delinking and acting as a
downstep operator on the following H -- the standard analytical move (Bird 1966:
135, Clements & Ford 1979: 206, Paster & Kim 2011). The author even points out a
further argument for treating the mid tone as a downstepped H: the mid tone is
phonetically identical to the automatic lowering of H after L through downdrift.
Inexplicably, the author rejects the analysis of the mid tone as a downstepped
H, claiming that “in Fuliiru the L tone (as well as the H tone) of a
tautosyllabic LH is always linked to the TBU on which it is realized” (p. 121).
The theoretical assumptions concerning the relationship between phonological
representations and phonetic forms underlying this rejection are unclear; there
is no further discussion of how the phonological representation in which a LH
sequence linked to a single syllable translates into the phonetics as a mid tone.

Citations: The Bantu linguistics literature is only superficially integrated
into Vol. 1. In light of the fact that phonology and tone are the two main
sections of Vol. 1, it is striking that the work of several prominent Bantuist
phonologists of the autosegmental era is missing or severely underrepresented in
the references. Key omissions include Bickmore (2007), all works by Downing,
most of the relevant publications of Kisseberth and Odden, Hyman (2001), and
Stevick (1969). While some appropriate references to other languages with three
tonal classes of verbs are provided, §3.3 does not give much contextualization
of Fuliiru’s noteworthy status as a ‘reversive’ language.

It is claimed in the book’s advertising that “these volumes aim at a thorough
presentation of the many interesting features found in a typical Interlacustrine
Bantu (J) language”. In light of this claim, the almost complete lack of
interaction with the literature on Bantu languages from Zone J is even more
surprising. Nothing is said about several J Zone languages that are the subject
of rich descriptions and analyses (especially with respect to tone): Haya, Jita,
Kerewe, Bukusu and other Luyia varieties, Nande, Nkore, etc., and there is no
mention of Harjula’s (2004) grammar of Ha, which, like the current two-volume
set, is based primarily on data drawn from texts.

The Bantu linguistics literature is also poorly represented on the issue of
prosodic minimality effects. This is a fairly minor omission, but the apparent
lack of consultation of this relatively vast literature (see e.g. Downing 2001,
2006, Park 1997) leads to an inaccurate characterization of this literature (p.
425): “Polymorphemic words [in Bantu languages] are the rule rather than the
exception. This fact is widely recognized. What is not so often noted is that
many, if not most Bantu languages seem to have some degree of phonological
constraint against independent monosyllabic words.” In fact, such constraints
are well known and well discussed.

Conclusion: Vol. 1 of “The Kifuliiru Language” is a rich resource on an
interesting language that fails to satisfy the high expectations demanded of
descriptions and analyses of the phonology, morphology, and tone of a Bantu
language. In view of other high-quality works on Bantu languages and the depth
and breadth of the corpus that the author has developed over many years of
research on Fuliiru, a more rigorous treatment of the facts of Fuliiru should be
possible. Considering that this book is likely to be the main and probably only
reference on Fuliiru for many years to come, it is my sincere hope that a second
edition of Vol. 1 can be produced that addresses the many fixable problems
identified here.


Bickmore, Lee. 2007. Cilungu phonology. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Bird, Charles. 1966. Aspects of Bambara syntax. Los Angeles: University of
California Ph.D. dissertation.

Clements, George N. & Kevin Ford. 1979. Kikuyu tone shift and its synchronic
consequences. Linguistic Inquiry 10. 179-210.

Downing, Laura J. 2001. Ungeneralizable minimality in Ndebele. Studies in
African Linguistics 30. 33-58.

Downing, Laura J. 2006. Canonical forms in prosodic morphology. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Downing, Laura J. 2011. Bantu tone. In Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen,
Elizabeth Hume & Keren Rice (eds.), The Blackwell companion to phonology.
Cambridge, MA & Oxford: Blackwell.

Harjula, Lotta. 2004. The Ha language of Tanzania. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.

Hyman, Larry M. 2001. Privative tone in Bantu. In Shigeki Kaji (ed.),
Cross-linguistic studies of tonal phenomena, 237-257. Tokyo: Institute for the
Study of Languages and Cultures.

Kisseberth, Charles & David Odden. 2003. Tone. In Derek Nurse & Gérard
Philippson (eds.), The Bantu languages, 59-70. London: Routledge.

Park, Jae-Ick. 1997. Minimal word effects with special reference to Swahili.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Ph.D. dissertation.

Paster, Mary & Yuni Kim. 2011. Downstep in Tiriki. Linguistic Discovery 9. 71-104.

Stevick, Earl. 1969. Tone in Bantu. International Journal of American
Linguistics 35. 330-341.

Michael R. Marlo is Assistant Professor of English and member of the Linguistics Program at the University of Missouri. His main research interests are in the study of tone and the description of underdocumented languages of Africa. He has been studying Kenyan varieties of the Luyia macrolanguage since 2000.

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